Thursday, August 13, 2015

A telling story of a riverboat ride

Did you keep a journal on your summer vacation? Harry’s speech below about a long-ago incident in London reminds us that it’s never too late to document our memorable trips. To me, it exemplifies how Harry could tell a story -- and remember every detail. He told this one at a synagogue event honoring his longtime friend Sid Spector. The two men met in the early 1950s, when they and their young families lived in Greenbelt, MD, the planned community where pioneer families formed lifelong friendships.

Harry and Jeanette feed pigeons on their shoulder in London, circa early 1980s; Jeanette (behind) with fellow travelers Sid, Irene, and Frances.

It was about 25 years ago, or thereabouts, when we took a trip to England – Frances and Jack Sanders, Irene and Sid Spector, and Jeanette and I – Harry Zubkoff. It was a great trip, not only because of the adventures we experienced, but because of the company we were in. But let me tell you about one incident that comes to mind, just to illustrate the kind of man Sid Spector is.

We had arranged to take a little boat tour of London on the Thames, that storied river that runs through the heart of town. It wasn’t a big boat, just a couple dozen passengers at most, with a guide who pointed out the historic sites as we passed them by. After a while we noticed that the boat had slowed down considerably and seemed to be lazing around in circles. Actually, it really was sort of drifting around in circles with the engine just a shade above idling.

Then the Captain came down from the bridge and opened up a hatch on the aft deck and disappeared down below. Now all the passengers gathered around wondering what was going on and beginning to get a little concerned.

The Thames, in a way, is something like the Potomac River which runs through the heart of Washington – which is to say, polluted. It was not much more than about 100 yards wide where we were, not too far to swim to shore if we had to; but who would want to risk entering those polluted waters? Well, anyway, there we stood, murmuring to each other nervously and getting increasingly anxious and yes, a little bit scared, too. But not our Sid.

Bold as brass, Sid detached himself from our group and followed the Captain down the hatchway to below decks. We could hear them talking down there but couldn’t make out the words. After a while, the Captain came back up and announced that there was something wrong with the rudder, which meant that he could not steer the boat, and that he would have to call a rescue vessel to come alongside and take the passengers off and ferry them back to shore.

Then he and Sid began discussing the problem and what they could do about it, and after some arguing back and forth they arrived at a solution. Sid was to go back below and manipulate the rudder manually while the Captain eased the engine to slow forward speed and shouted instructions to Sid to move the rudder this way and that to get us back to the home dock.

Well, that’s exactly what they did, and it worked. Sid saved that boat company a lot of money that day, the passengers had an adventure they would always remember (imagine, stuck in the middle of the Thames River), and we confirmed what we always knew anyway – Sid Spector is some kind of clown and our hero.

Oh, and by the way, the Captain made Sid an honorary member of England’s Merchant Marines and gave him a pass on that little river ship line if he ever gets back to England.  

Sid really was "some kind of clown." Harry posed separately with friends Sid and his wife Irene, circa mid 1980s. By the way, these two clowns managed to enter the Pentagon to surprise Harry on the occasion of his retirement in 1986 -- and a TV crew caught them on camera during an "end of an era" interview with Harry. I'll post the video transcript and excerpts soon -- stay tuned.


  1. Wonderful story and also wonderful photos. No one smiled like Uncle Harry!

  2. Harry's dear friend, Ron Hall, wrote:

    I would go to the mail box on many occasions to find books that Harry wanted me to have. What a guy and long time friend. I was the air staff photographer and interacted with Harry at the Pentagon, and as time went on and we were retired, we would often meet for lunch.

  3. Les Evjen wrote:

    In this little story we find another tenet of Harry's character; make someone else the center of attention, observe and listen carefully to what they do and say, and then honor them with the telling.